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A Call to Arms

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

At clinics across the county, health care officials say they are seeing double the number of children braving hepatitis B vaccinations in order to meet a new state immunization requirement.

A new law, which went into effect last month, mandates that incoming seventh-graders must at least have started the three-dose hepatitis series by the first day of school.

Even though most Orange County school districts began informing families of the new requirement as early as last spring, many procrastinating parents are now scrambling to make the deadline.

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One frustrated mother at an Anaheim clinic drove from San Juan Capistrano to have her son vaccinated before he signs up for classes next week.

Another, Shelli Yazon, found herself on a two-day cross-county odyssey to meet her son’s noon Friday deadline. One clinic they visited had a wait nearing three hours; another simply closed its doors. “There was just no more room in the building,” said nurse Kevin Jerry of the overwhelming demand.

“This is very frustrating,” said Yazon, adding that she even called a hospital in hopes of finding a remedy--no luck there, either. “It’s been a real hassle.”

When last seen, Yazon and son Ryan, 12, were at a third clinic. Fortunately for them, Ryan’s school--Brookhurst Junior High in Anaheim--had extended the vaccination deadline to 4 p.m.

“I would pay anything at this point to not be sitting here. . . . I work. I had to take the day off,” Yazon said.

Officials say the end of August always brings a mad back-to-school vaccination rush, but typically just for incoming kindergartners. Now, with the new state law, incoming seventh-graders are joining the queue.

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At the county clinic in Santa Ana, staffers estimated that they inoculated more than 250 middle-schoolers in just two days last week. As early as 7:45 a.m. Friday, a line snaked out the door. Clinic workers are seeing “at least double” the usual number of young patients, one frazzled but cheerful staffer said.

Celleigh McHenry, 12, whiled away her 2 1/2-hour wait by playing cards with her dad.

“We procrastinated all summer long,” said her father, Mike McHenry. “There’s a three-week wait at the doctor’s office for the shots and she starts school next Wednesday. . . . Now we’re between a rock and a hard place.”

But almost everyone sitting, standing and kneeling in the waiting room agreed that the lines could have been worse--much, much worse--if the county hadn’t started its vaccination push at the end of the last school year. About 5,000 of the county’s estimated 35,000 incoming seventh-graders have been vaccinated every month since spring, according to Mary Wright, county immunization project coordinator. “We’ve been hammering it down,” she said.

But county officials say that up to several thousand students may still need to be vaccinated for hepatitis B, an infection of the liver caused by a virus present in the blood or other bodily fluids. An estimated 140,000 to 320,000 U.S. residents contract the disease each year, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. About 5,000 people die yearly in the U.S. from hepatitis-related ailments.

The hepatitis B vaccine has been available since 1982 and required for incoming kindergartners since 1997. Now, with another checkpoint at seventh grade, health officials hope to catch children who haven’t seen a vaccination needle since toddlerhood. Experts say these preteens are approaching the years when the disease is often contracted.

But some officials worry that older students--like those in high school--might miss out completely on the hepatitis B vaccination because there is no program in place to ensure that their vaccinations are up to date.

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“These are the kids that will really fall through the cracks,” Wright said.

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